“HIDDEN FIGURES” (2016) Review

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“HIDDEN FIGURES” (2016) Review

In all my years of reading about the men and women who worked at NASA, whether in the air or on the ground, I have only come across two people who people of color. And both were astronauts. Not once did those articles ever reveal the numerous African-Americans who worked at NASA – including those women who worked as mathematicians (Human Computers) for NASA during the Space Race between the 1950s and 1970s. 

Imagine my surprise when I first learned that 20th Century Fox Studios planned to distribute a movie based upon the 2016 non-fiction book, “Hidden Figures”. Written by Margot Lee Shetterly, the book focused on three NASA mathematicians – Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson. Even before the movie was finally released, a NBC series called “TIMELESS” aired an episode set during the Apollo 11 mission that featured one of the movie’s main characters – Katherine Johnson. In the midst of all of this, I found myself anticipating the movie.

As I had stated earlier, “HIDDEN FIGURES” began in early 1961 in which mathematicians Katherine Johnson and Dorothy Vaughn, along with aspiring engineer Mary Jackson; are working at NASA’s West Area Computers division of Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia with minimum satisfaction. Dorothy, who works as an unofficial supervisor of the black women who served as Human Computers, requests to be officially promoted to supervisor. Her request is rejected by her supervisor, Vivian Mitchell. Mary identifies a flaw in the experimental space capsule’s heat shields. Space engineer Karl Zielinski encourages her to aggressively pursue a degree in engineering for a more substantial position at NASA. In order to attain a graduate degree in engineering, Mary would have to take the required courses in math and physics from a University of Virginia night program being taught at the all-white Hampton High School. After the Soviet Union manages to send a successful Russian satellite launch, pressure to send American astronauts into space increases. Vivian Mitchell assigns Katherine to assist Director Al Harrison’s Space Task Group, due to her skills in analytic geometry. Katherine becomes the first African-American woman to work with the team and in the building. But her new colleagues are initially dismissive of her presence on the team, especially Paul Stafford, the Group’s head engineer. The movie focuses on the three women’s efforts to overcome bigoted attitudes and institutional racism to achieve their goals at NASA.

“HIDDEN FIGURES”, like any other historical drama I have ever seen or read, is mixture of fact and fiction. Some of the movie’s characters are fictional. And Allison Schroeder and director Theodore Melfi may have mixed up the dates on some of the film’s events. But as far as I am concerned, this did not harm the movie. More importantly, Schroeder and Melfi created a screenplay that maintained my interest in a way that some films with a similar topic have failed to do. In other words, “HIDDEN FIGURES” proved to be a subtle, yet captivating movie.

The movie’s subtle tone manifested in the racism encountered by the three women. Katherine Johnson dealt with the Space Task Group’s quiet refusal to take her seriously via minor pranks and dismissive attitudes. She also has to deal with Paul Stafford’s constant stream of complaints, skeptical comments and attempts to take credit for her work. Worst of all, Katherine is forced to walk (or run) several miles back to her old building in order to use the restroom, due to the Space Task Group’s restrooms being off-limits to non-whites. Dorothy Vaughn is determined to become the official supervisor for the segregated West Area human computers. But due to her race, her supervisor – Vivian Mitchell – refuses to consider giving Dorothy a genuine promotion. The most subtle example of racism found in the movie manifested in Mary Jackson’s desire to return to school and attain a graduate degree in engineering. The racism she faced seemed to be internal. Despite urgings from both her husband and Mr. Zielinski, Mary seemed reluctant to request permission from the Virginia courts to attend a segregated school in order to obtain a graduate Engineering degree. Subconsciously, she seemed to believe that her efforts would be wasted.

The fascinating thing about the racism that the three women faced is that violence of any kind was not involved. The racism that they faced was subtle, insidious and nearly soul-crushing. But no violence was involved. The closest they came to encountering violence occurred when a law officer stopped to question them, while Dorothy’s car was stranded at the side of the road in the movie’s opening scene. The cop eventually escorted them to the Langley Research Center after learning they worked for NASA. Yet, I could not help but feel that the entire scene seemed to crackle with both humor, intimidation and a little terror, thanks to Theodore Melfi’s direction.

Despite my admiration of Melfi’s direction of the above-mentioned scene, I have to admit that I would not regard it as one of the best things about “HIDDEN FIGURES”. I am not stating that I found his direction lousy or mediocre. If I must be honest, I thought it was pretty solid, aside from that opening scene, which I found exceptional. “HIDDEN FIGURES”was his third feature-length film as a director . . . and it showed. I suspect that the movie benefited more from its subject matter, screenplay and its cast.

I certainly had no problems with the movie’s production values. Despite the movie being set in Northern Virginia, it was shot in Georgia. And Mandy Walker’s sharp and colorful photography certainly took advantage of the location. And thanks to Wynn Thomas’ production designs, Missy Parker’s set decorations, and Jeremy Woolsey’s art direction, I felt as if I had been transported back to Hampton, Virginia, circa 1961. I can also say the same about Renee Ehrlich Kalfus’ costumes, which I felt had accurately reflected the characters’ personalities and social class, as shown in the images below:

Only one cast member from “HIDDEN FIGURES” had received any acting nominations. Octavia Spencer received both an Academy Award nomination and Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Personally, she deserved it. I thought Spencer gave a very subtle, yet commanding performance as the group’s aspiring supervisor, Dorothy Vaughn. I was also impressed by Janelle Monáe, who not only gave a very entertaining performance as the extroverted and witty Mary Jackson, but also did an impressive job in conveying her character’s self-doubts about pursuing an Engineering graduate’s degree. I am surprised that Taraji P. Henson did not received any major acting nominations for her performance as NASA mathematician Katherine Goble (later Johnson). Personally, I find that baffling. I was very impressed by her quiet and subtle performance as the widowed mathematician, who not only struggled to endure the dismissive attitude of her Space Group Task Force colleagues, but also found love again after spending a few years as a widow. Personally, I thought Henson’s performance deserved at least an award nomination or two.

“HIDDEN FIGURES” also featured top notch performances from the supporting cast. Kevin Costner gave a very colorful performances as the Space Group Task Force director Al Harrison. The movie’s other colorful performance came from Glen Powell, who portrayed astronaut and future U.S. senator John Glennn. Jim Parsons was just as subtle as Henson in his portrayal of the racist, yet insecure head engineer Paul Stafford. Mahershala Ali gave a nice and charming performance as Katherine’s second husband, Jim Johnson. But his performance did not strike as particularly memorable. Aldis Hodge, on the other hand, gave an intense and interesting performance as Mary’s politically-inclined husband, Levi Jackson; who urges his wife to overcome her reluctance to pursue a graduate degree in Engineering. This movie seemed to be filled with subtle performance for Kirsten Dunst also gave one as the slightly racist Vivian Mitchell, supervisor of all the Human Computers.

The movie turned out to be quite a surprise for me. Watching the trailer, I came away with the impression that it would be one of those nice, but mediocre live-action Disney films. And to be honest, there were moments when Theodore Melfi’s direction gave that impression. He does not strike me as a particularly memorable director. But that opening sequence featuring the three protagonists and a cop seemed to hint Melfi’s potential to become a first-rate director. In the end, the movie’s superb Oscar-nominated screenplay and the excellent performances of a cast led by Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe made “HIDDEN FIGURES” one of my favorite movies of 2016.

 

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The Complexity of Wonder Woman

 

“THE COMPLEXITY OF WONDER WOMAN”

Ever since the release of the DCEU’s new movie, “WONDER WOMAN”, film critics and moviegoers have been raving over it and raving over the Diana Prince aka Wonder Woman character as this ray of sunshine in the middle of Warner Brother Studio’s DCEU’s “doom and gloom”. Sigh! 

First of all, the main reason I had looked forward to seeing “WONDER WOMAN” in the first place was my curiosity over the main protagonist’s development. I was curious to see how the Wonder Woman/Diana Prince character had transformed into the somewhat cynical and weary woman that I saw in the 2016 film, “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE”. That was it. I was not that concerned about Wonder Woman being portrayed as some unstoppable figure of action in the middle of World War I or some one-dimensional feminist icon.

To be honest, if Wonder Woman had simply been this “symbol of goodness and hope” in this new movie, I would have dismissed her as a boring character. I would also have dismissed the film as not worthy of my time. I believe that kind of description would have shoved Wonder Woman into some kind of whore/Madonna category, with her being “the Madonna”. Wonder Woman was a lot more than this “symbol of hope and compassion” . . . this Madonna. A lot more.

For me, Princess Diana aka Diana Prince aka Wonder Woman was a person . . . an individual who was compassionate, strong-willed and intelligent. But she was also a person whose bubble-like upbringing by her mother, Queen Hippolyta, also led her to become a rather naive and unpractical person by the time she left her homeland of Themyscira Island with Steve Trevor. And her unwillingness to let go of her naivety also revealed that she could be quite stubborn. The reason why I liked the portrayal of Diana in “WONDER WOMAN” in the first place was that the movie was not afraid to show both the good and the bad about her character. And I have to thank director Patty Jenkins; screenwriters Allan Heinberg, Zack Snyder and Jason Fuchs; and actress Gal Gadot for this well-rounded portrayal. I found the Wonder Woman characterization quite refreshing and an example of really good writing.

As I had stated earlier, I did not watch “WONDER WOMAN” in order to view the main character as some kind of one-dimensional feminist ideal or some symbol of everything that is pure, good and whatever form of moral saccharine that many critics seem inclined to dump on her. I wanted to see a story about a woman, a complex woman with virtues and flaws … and how she was forced to grow up and develop as a character. And as far as I am concerned, that is what I got.

A Letter From Verity

 

A LETTER FROM VERITY

Below is a passage from a letter written to Demelza Carne Poldark, from Verity Poldark Blamey in the 1953 Winston Graham novel, “WARLEGGAN:

“I hope Ross is prospering.  I need hardly be told the effect Elizabeth’s marriage to George Warleggan will have had on him, and now that they are coming to live beside you it will be an added Offence.  Pray be patient with Ross at this time.  I have not seen Elizabeth since the day of the wedding, but have had one letter from her.  We went, of course, to the wedding, Andrew and I; for Elizabeth’s sake we could not well refuse; she had Few enough of her own people about her.  From the start I do not think I liked greatly the thought of this Union.  I have no feud such as Ross has to support me, and I have nothing against the Warleggans because they are new rich.  Most of our aristocratic families were founded by successful traders at one time or another.  But George has never quite carried his money Rightly.  None of them do, and when you see them in Aggregate, it is specially noticeable.”

You know . . . despite the fact that she had been married to a middle-class sea captain for at least four years, despite her declaration that she had nothing against the Warleggan family because they were noveau riche, despite her revelation that many aristocratic families had originated as successful traders and the fact that she was writing to her cousin-in-law, who had been born into the working-class . . . I now realize that Verity was a snob . . . despite all of the above.  How disappointing.  And not surprising.  I see that in some ways, she is a lot like her cousin Ross Poldark.

“THE CHISHOLMS” (1979): Chapter I Commentary

 

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“THE CHISHOLMS” (1979): CHAPTER I Commentary

Years ago, before the advent of DVDs, I had perused my local video rental store for something to watch. I came across a miniseries called “THE CHISHOLMS”. Due to it being a Western and possessing a running time of four hours and thirty minutes, I decided to give it a chance. I managed to purchase a VHS copy of the miniseries and enjoy for several years. But with the advent of the DVD and my VHS player going on the blink, I had to wait quite a while before I could finally get a DVD copy of it. 

Based upon Evan Hunter’s 1976 novel, “THE CHISHOLMS” told the story of a family from western Virginia, who make the momentous decision to travel west to California after losing part of their farm to a neighbor, due to some unusual circumstances. Unlike many other television and movie productions about the westward migration during the 1840s, “THE CHIISHOLMS” took its time in setting up the story. In this first episode, it spent at least an hour introducing the Chisholm family – namely:

*Hadley Chisholm – the family’s patriarch and owner of a farm in western Virginia
*Minerva Chisholm – the family’s matriarch
*William “Will” Chisholm – Hadley and Minerva’s oldest son, who is also a veteran of the Texas Revolution
*Gideon Chisholm – Hadley and Minerva’s second son
*Bonnie Sue Chisholm – Hadley and Minerva’s older daughter and Beau’s twin
*Beau Chisholm – Hadley and Minerva’s youngest son and Bonnie Sue’s twin
*Annabel Chisholm – Hadley and Minerva’s younger daughter and youngest offspring

The first episode or Chapter I began with Will’s wedding to a young local woman named Elizabeth during the spring of 1843. Also, the family is unaware of Bonnie Sue’s romance with a young man named Brian Cassidy. Unfortunately for her and Brian, the Chisholms and the Cassidys have been engaged in a feud ever since Hadley’s brother had rejected Brian’s aunt at the wedding altar several decades ago. When the latter died, the Chisholms and the Cassidys discovered that she had received a portion of the Chisholm land – the farm’s most fertile – from Hadley’s brother as compensation for being dumped. She never revealed this to her family or the Chisholms. But she did leave her land to her brother and Brian’s father, Luke Cassidy, who did not wait long to demand that the Chisholms hand over the land. Matters worsen for the Chisholms when Will’s bride die from an infection after giving birth to an unborn child.

With no fertile land to farm, Hadley Chisholm decides to pack his family and migrate to California. Most of the family agrees with his decision, except Minerva, who is reluctant to leave Virginia; and Bonnie Sue, who is reluctant to leave Brian. The journey west goes without a hitch, until the family reaches Louisville, Kentucky. There, they discover from a young Western guide named Lester Hackett that they had departed Virginia at least a month or two late for the journey to California. The family had reached Louisville in mid-May 1844, around the time when most emigrant wagon trains usually departed Independence, Missouri. Upon learning this, Hadley changes his mind about the journey to California and decides to return to Virginia. But Will informs him that there are other members of the family are willing to utilize Lester’s plan that would eliminate some time from their trip to Independence. After the Chisholms decide to continue west via a family vote, they utilize Lester’s plan by boarding a flat-bottom boat that takes them to Evansville in western Indiana, cutting off their journey by a few weeks.

Some people might find the first hour of “THE CHISHOLMS” rather hard to endure. Most movie and television productions usually spend at least fifteen minutes in introducing its characters and conveying the reasons behind their decision to migrate to the West. “THE CHISHOLMS” spent an hour. Personally, this did not bother me, for I found the circumstances behind the Chisholms’ decision to head for California rather interesting. Especially since the circumstances involved a potential feud with another family. Other reasons why I rather enjoyed the miniseries’ first hour was how the circumstances in which the family made its departure originated with Hadley Chisholm’s displeasure over the neighborhood’s new minister from Vermont and how the latter conducted Elizabeth Chisholm’s funeral. I would explain how Hadley’s conflict over the new minister led to the family sneaking away from their home in the middle of the night. But it would require a great deal of narration on my part. And honestly, I would suggest that you simply watch the miniseries.

Once the family hit the road for California, the miniseries went into full steam. Chapter I only followed the Chisholms from Virginia to southwestern Indiana, but a good deal happened in that half hour. The temptation to return home to Virginia hovered over the family all the way to Louisville. And when the family learned from Lester Hackett that they had left Virginia about a month or so too late, even Hadley was tempted to turn around. What I found interesting about this turn of events is that Chisholms’ decision on whether to return to Virginia or continue west to California depended upon a family vote . . . and the instant attraction between Bonnie Sue Chisholm and Lester. Personally, I would have ended Chapter I with that scene inside a Louisville stable. Hadley and Minerva’s willingness to decide the whole matter on a vote, along with the sexual attraction between Bonnie Sue and Lester, would end up producing strong consequences later in the miniseries and in the short-lived television series that followed. Instead, the Chisholms experienced a brief journey down the Ohio River on a broad horn (flat-bottom raft), while Minerva endured the unwanted attention of the broad horn’s captain (or patroon) named Jimmy Jackson. By the time the family reached the outskirts of Evansville, it had reached the point of no return.

Another aspect about “THE CHISHOLMS” that I enjoyed, was how the producers, director Mel Stuart and the screenwriters utilized the production’s historical background without hitting viewers over the head with facts. The family had departed Virginia in 1844, a year that featured a Presidential election. Not once did the topic of the election graced anyone’s lips. But the miniseries made it clear that Will Chisholm was a veteran of the Texas Revolution of 1836. The miniseries also brought up the topic of slavery. The narrative pointed out that Hadley’s wealthiest neighbor was a planter and slave owner. And during the last half hour of Chapter I, a coffle of slaves was among the other passengers aboard Jimmy Jackson’s broad horn, leading Minerva Chisholm to express anti-slavery sentiments. I also enjoyed how the miniseries gave television viewers a lengthy peek into life in the early-to-mid 19th century Appalachia. I have always admired Aaron Copeland’s score for the miniseries. But I must admit that his score contributed to this episode’s first hour, which featured the Chisholms’ life in western Virginia.

Most of the production’s historical background seemed to revolve around the family’s westward journey. Unlike many Hollywood productions, television viewers did not see the Chisholms’ wagon being pulled by horses (which is historically inaccurate). And the narrative went out of its way to point out that the family began its westbound journey about a month or two late. I also enjoyed the brief montage that featured the Chisholms’ early start on the journey and what it took for them to maintain supplies and keep their wagon in condition. Steven P. Sardanis’s production designs, the art direction that he provided with Fred Price, Charles Korian and Charles B. Price’s set decorations, and Tom Costick’s costumes (to a certain extent), did a great job in re-creating western Virginia and the Ohio River Valley circa 1844.

But in the, the cast proved to be the best thing about “THE CHISHOLMS”. I must commend casting director Vicki Rosenberg for gathering a first-rate collection of performers for the cast. The miniseries featured solid performances from Dean Hill, Jack Wallace, Maureen Steindler, Tom Taylor, James O’Reilly and Gavin Troster; even if they did not exactly rock my boat. Glynnis O’Connor gave a charming performance as Will’s young wife, Elizabeth Chisholm. Anthony Zerbe gave a spotless performance as the sleazy flat boat patroon, Jimmy Jackson. But the one supporting performance that caught my eye came from Charles Frank, who gave the first of a series of dazzling performance as the charmingly ambiguous Lester Hackett.

Rosenberg casting of the Chisholm family proved to be even more impressive to me. Susan Swift gave a very charming and balanced performance as the family’s youngest member, Annabel Chisholm, who seemed divided between the adventure of migrating to California and being mindful of her mother’s reluctance to move. James Van Patten gave a very energetic and intense performance as the family’s hot-tempered member, Beau Chisholm. Stacy Nelkin’s portrayal of the sensual, yet pragmatic Bonnie Sue Chisholm struck me as very skillful, which is why her performance was one of my favorites in the series. Brian Kerwin, whom I remember from the 1982 miniseries, “THE BLUE AND THE GRAY”, seemed a bit laid back as middle son, Gideon Chisholm. But he gave a charming performance in the end. Ben Murphy portrayed the oldest sibling, Will Chisholm. And I thought he did a great job in revealing how Will seemed to be an interesting combination of his parents. I was especially impressed by how he handled Will’s grief over Elizabeth’s death.
Years after I had first seen “THE CHISHOLMS”, I was surprised to learn that the two leads – Robert Preston and Rosemary Harris – had first worked together on the 1966 Broadway play, “THE LION IN THE WINTER”. I do not if having them reunite for the 1979 miniseries was Rosenberg or someone’s idea, but it was a damn good one, all the same. What can I say? Whatever magic Preston and Harris had created on Broadway back in the mid-1960s, they managed to re-create it front of the television camera some 12 to 13 years later. In some ways, the pair seemed like the yin and yang of the Chisholm family. They were so perfect together that I do not know how else to describe their performance.

Before I end this article, I must admit there were one or two aspects of “THE CHISHOLMS” that either did not impress me or . . . confused me. Although I believe that Tom Costick’s costumes added to the production mid-1840s setting . . . but only to a certain degree. It did seem that a great deal of Costick’s costumes looked as if they had come out of a Hollywood warehouse, instead of being created by him. Especially the women’s costumes. Even those costumes worn by well-to-do women in the Louisville sequence gave that impression. And I am a little confused about the circumstances surrounding Hadley’s loss of his most fertile cornfield. I understood how he lost the actual land to Luke Cassidy. What I did understand was how Cassidy managed to take possession of the corn that the Chisholm family had already sown. Surely the court would have allowed the Chisholms to profit from the corn sown from seeds purchased by them? If someone could clear this matter for me, please do so.

Despite my quibbles regarding the costumes and the matter surrounding the cornfield lost to the Chisholms, I enjoyed Chapter I of “THE CHISHOLMS” very much. In fact, watching it reminded me why it had become one of my favorite miniseries in the first place. Why on earth did I wait so long in watching it again? Oh well . . . on to Chapter II.

“COPPER”: Top Five Favorite Season Two (2013) Episodes

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Below is a list of my top five favorite episodes from Season Two of the BBC America series “COPPER”. Created by Tom Fontana and Will Rokos, the series starred Tom Weston-Jones, Kyle Schmid and Ato Essandoh: 

 

“COPPER”: TOP FIVE FAVORITE SEASON TWO (2013) Episodes

1 - 2.05 A Morning Song

1. (2.05) “A Morning Song” – Major counterfeiter Philomen Keating takes over the Sixth Ward precinct and hold hostages in an effort to retrieve his confiscated counterfeiting plates back.

 

 

2. (2.10) “The Fine Ould Irish Gintleman” – Detective Kevin Corcoran begins to question General Brendan Donovan’s stronghold in the Five Points community, and solicits coppers of the Sixth Precinct to suss out the truth. Meanwhile, Dr. Matthew Freeman and his wife Sarah deal with bigots in the community.

 

 

3 - 2.03 The Children of the Battlefield

3. (2.03) “The Children of the Battlefield” – While Kevin searches for the person responsible for the kidnapping and murder of young Five Points men, Robert Morehouse and the widowed Elizabeth Haverford exchange wedding vows before the latter reveals an unpleasant surprise.

 

 

4 - 2.07 The Hope Too Bright to Last

4. (2.07) “The Hope Too Bright to Last” – Kevin becomes so embroiled in a double that he ends up ignoring his estranged wife Ellen. Meanwhile, Matthew investigates an epidemic among Five Points’ poor.

 

 

5 - 2.11 Good Heart and Willing Hand

5. (2.11) “Good Heart and Willing Hand” – Looming devastation to Five Points forces Detective Kevin Corcoran to confront the man behind it.

“Ross Poldark and Noblesse Oblige”

“ROSS POLDARK AND NOBLESSE OBLIGE”

“You are mistaken if you think greed and exploitation are the marks of a gentleman.” – Ross Poldark to George Warleggan, “P0LDARK” (2015) 

When I first heard Ross Poldark speak those words to his nemesis, George Warleggan in Episode Eight of the current “POLDARK”series, I found myself wondering if Ross might be full of shit. Or perhaps he was either illusional . . . or a class bigot. Regardless, I could not help but roll my eyes at his remark.

I realize that some might wonder how I could accuse Ross Poldark . . . Ross Poldark of class bigotry. This man has been a champion of the working-class in his little part of Cornwall. He has managed to befriend his workers. He has spoken out on behalf of them and other members of their class. And he has been willing to make any effort to come to their aid – especially those who work on his land, even if he sometimes come off as patronizing. He has certainly expressed anger when he believed any of them has needlessly suffered, due to the actions of the upper-class or other wealthy types. Ross had spent days in a state of drunken anger after one of his former employees, Jim Carter had died after spending over a year in prison for poaching. He had also married his kitchen-maid, Demelza Carne, despite the tongue-wagging of his elite neighbors and family members.

Also, one cannot deny that the Warleggans deserved Ross’ scorn. George Warleggan’s grandfather had been a blacksmith who eventually became a moderately wealthy man. His sons – George’s father and uncle Cary – acquired even more wealth, leading the family to become their parish’s wealthiest bankers. George was the first in his family to be and his family were a money hungry bunch that resort to grasping ways – legal or illegal – to not only acquire money, but also rise up the social ladder in order to become part of Cornwall’s upper-class. They are pretty much an ambitious and venal bunch who do not seemed to give a rat’s ass about the suffering of the lower classes. They also seemed willing to inflict suffering upon them for the sake of greater profits and social respectability. And yet . . . the interesting thing about the Warleggans is that they had managed to acquire great wealth on their own – meaning without the help of some aristocrat or member of the landed gentry.

So, why did I have a problem with Ross’ words? Were viewers really expected to believe that only noveau riche types like the Warleggans were capable of greed and exploitation? History tells us that the landed gentry and the aristocracy were just as guilty of greed and exploiting not only their workers, but their land, despite occasional moments of taking care of those beneath them when times were tough. And yet, I get the feeling that those moments of compassion stemmed from the idea of “noblesse oblige” – people of noble birth being duty bound to take responsibility for the well being of those under their patronage or employment. However, “noblesse oblige” had not prevented aristocrats and members of the landed gentry from engaging in years of exploiting their land, their tenants and their employees; living greedily from their profits, and doing a poor job of managing their money led to a decrease in their wealth. This was the case for Polarks, the Chynoweths and other upper class families – fictional or not – who found themselves cash poor by the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. British landowners had been enclosing their lands – forcing tenant farmers to become agricultural laborers – since the late seventeeth century, at least a century before George Warleggan had enclosed the Trenwith estate, following his marriage to Elizabeth Chynoweth Poldark. And they continued to do so well into the nineteenth century.

If Ross regarded himself, his uncle Charles Poldark, his cousin Francis Poldark and other members of the landed gentry like Sir Hugh Bodrugan, the Treneglos, Ray Penvenen and Unwin Trevaunance as “gentlemen”, then his comments to George were spoken in error. Most, if not all, of these gentlemen were capable of greed and exploitation. Ross might occasionally criticize the behavior of his fellow members of the upper-class, just as he had did following the death of his former employee, Jim Carter. But he has never expressed antagonism toward them with the same level that he has toward the Warleggans. It is quite obvious that he regarded these men as “gentlemen”. He seemed to have no problems with socializing or forming a business enterprise with them. And if this is the case, I cannot help but wonder about the true reason behind Ross’ antipathy toward the Warleggans.

Had Ross’ antipathy originated with his exposure of the Warleggans’ cousin, Matthew Sanson, as a card cheat? I rather doubt it. Ross and some of his other acquaintances had been making snide comments about the Warleggans’ rise in wealth since the series began. No matter how many times George tried to befriend Ross throughout most of Series One, the latter would dismiss his effort with a sardonic or nasty comment. Yet, Ross seemed to have no problems with socializing with the likes of the snotty Ruth Teague Treneglos and her ineffectual husband; the money grasping blue-blooded politician Unwin Trevaunance, who sought heiress Caroline Penvenen’s hand for her money; or the self-absorbed Sir Hugh Bodrugan, who seemed to have no concern for anyone or anything, aside from his own pleasures – including Demelza Poldark, whom he pursued like some aged satyr. Even Ross is not the epitome of “gentlemanly” sainthood. He seemed so hellbent upon finding a wealthy source of copper or even tin from his mine, Wheal Grace that he failed to consider that he lacked the funds to ensure a safe environment for his workers. This determination to strike a lode without any safety measures led to an accident and the deaths of a few men. And his aggressive, yet adulterous actions against his widowed cousin-in-law (I might as well be frank – his rape of Elzabeth) in the eighth episode of Series Two made it perfectly clear that “gentleman” or not, Ross can be repulsive.

And yet, despite all of this, Ross seemed to regard the Warleggans as an unworthy lot. I am not saying that George and his uncle are a nice bunch. They can be just as repulsive and greedy as their upper-class neighbors. And on several occasions, the Warleggans have made derisive comments about Demelza, who happened to be a miner’s daughter. All this tells me is that contrary to Ross’ comment to George, the latter’s family is no better or worse than the other upper-class characters in the “POLDARK” saga. They are quite capable of being snobs. But what about Ross? Is he a snob? He may be friendly toward his workers and willing to help them out, but his friendly and compassionate regard for them seemed to have a patronizing taint. In fact, his love toward his working-class wife Demelza seemed to have the same taint.

Although his good friend, Dr. Dwight Enys, managed to rise from his working-class background to become a doctor, he did so with the help of upper-class patronage. And Ross provided his own patronage toward Dwight in helping the latter establish a medical practice in their part of Cornwall. Ross even helped Dwight in the latter’s romance with the blue-blooded Caroline Penvenen. I cannot help but wonder if the Warleggans had the benefit of “noblesse oblige” – namely an upper-class mentor to guide them in their rise to great wealth, would Ross have been less hostile toward them?

Perhaps it is one thing for Ross Poldark to help the lower classes have a better life – by offering them jobs or homes, providing patronage for someone with potential like Dwight Enys, or marrying his kitchen maid. It is another thing – at least for him – to tolerate people from the lower classes like the Warleggans to rise up in wealth through their own efforts and not via the benefit of the “noblesse oblige”. And my gut instinct tells me that the Warleggans’ rise via their own grit, ambition and brains was something that Ross could not stomach.

“LOVE AND WAR” (1984) Book Review

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LOVE AND WAR (1984) Book Review

I have stumbled across my share of “Best Civil War Novels” lists on the Internet. I have yet to come across a list that includes John Jakes’ 1984 novel, “LOVE AND WAR”. 

Back in the 1980s, Jakes created his second major literary series, a trilogy about two wealthy American families during a period of thirty years during the 19th century. The first novel, “NORTH AND SOUTH” (1982) focused on the experiences of the Hazards of Pennsylvania and the Mains of South Carolina between the years 1842 and 1861. “HEAVEN AND HELL” (1987), the third novel, is set between 1865 and 1877. But the second novel, “LOVE AND WAR” focused on the two families’ experiences during the Civil War.

The trilogy began when George Hazard, the son of a wealthy iron industrialist; and Orry Main, the son of a South Carolina rice planter; first met on their way to West Point in the late spring of 1842. The pair quickly became life-long friends, as they survived four years at the military academy, the Mexican-American War, and nearly a decade-and-a-half of political strife over the issue of slavery. Due to George and Orry’s friendship, their two families became very close over the years. By the end of “NORTH AND SOUTH”, George’s younger brother Billy had married Orry’s younger sister, Brett. Orry and the love his life, Madeline Fabray LaMotte, finally reconciled after years of clandestine meetings, when Madeline left her venal husband Justin Lamotte, after seventeen years of marriage.

However, following the outbreak of the Civil War, the friendship and familial connection between the Hazards and the Mains became tested when the Civil War begins. “LOVE AND WAR” began two weeks after “NORTH AND SOUTH” ended – in late April 1861. By the beginning of “LOVE AND WAR”, the two families consist of:

The Hazards
*George Hazard – one of the protagonists, who is a former Army officer and like his father, an iron industrialist
*Constance Flynn Hazard – George’s Irish-born wife and an abolitionist
*Stanley Hazard – George’s older brother, who left the iron trade to become a politician
*Isobel Truscott Hazard – Stanley’s shrewish and social-climbing wife
*Virgilia Hazard – George’s only sister and die-hard abolitionist
*Billy Hazard – George’s younger brother and Army officer
*Brett Main Hazard – Orry’s youngest sister and Bily’s new bride

The Mains
*Orry Main – one of the protagonists, who is a former Army officer and like his father, a rice planter
*Madeline Fabray LaMotte Main – Orry’s wife and widow of Justin LaMotte
*Cooper Main – Orry’s older brother and owner of a shipping company
*Ashton Main Huntoon – Orry’s younger sister and die-hard secessionist
*Charles Main – Orry’s young cousin, who had resigned from the U.S. Army to join the Confederacy Army
*Judith Stafford Main – Cooper’s wife, who also happens to be an abolitionist
*James Huntoon – Ashton’s husband, who is also a secessionist and attorney
*Clarissa Brett Main – Orry’s ailing mother

The novel not only featured the viewpoints of the Hazards and Mains, but also their friends, lovers, slaves and one Elkhannah Bent, an Ohio-born Army officer who had become an enemy of George and Orry during their years at West Point. Bent even became an enemy of Charles Main, when the two had served together on the Texas frontier in the late 1850s. the outbreak and chaos of war, along with Bent’s determination to survive, failed to put a damper on his desire to strike back at George, Orry, Charles and the other members of the two families.

I noticed that most of “LOVE AND WAR” focused on the Civil War’s Eastern Theater. Aside from taking readers to the political offices, salons and the military hospitals of Washington D.C. and Union Army camps; the novel also explored the Union and Confederate home fronts in Lehigh Station, Pennsylvania – the Hazards’ hometown; and the Mains’ plantation, Mont Royal, in the South Carolina low country. Jakesk also explored various historical and violent incidents on the homefront through his characters – especially the Southern bread riot that broke out in 1862 Richmond, and the 1863 New York City draft riots. Although both George and Orry become military officers again after thirteen-to-fourteen years as civilians, their wartime experiences as military bureaucrats prove to be sources of great frustration for both of them. Stanley Hazard’s role as a political aide with the War Department gave readers a look into the politics of wartime Washington D.C. Readers learn about politics in wartime Richmond via the eyes of Ashton Main Huntoon, who also happened to be a politician’s wife. Through Virgilia Hazard, readers not only discover what countless number of women – including a future famous author – experienced as a wartime nurse. Cooper Main joined the Confederate’s Navy Department at the beginning of the war and through him, readers learned about the Confederates’ efforts to construct new warships in Great Britain’s shipyards. Through characters like Charles Main and Billy Hazard, readers explored the horrors of Civil War combat and prison camps in Maryland, Pennsylvania and especially Northern Virginia. Only through the Elkhannah Bent character were readers able to experience the war’s Western theater via the Battle of Shiloh and Union occupied New Orleans.

If I must be honest, I am rather surprised that Jakes’ trilogy, especially “LOVE AND WAR”, became major bestsellers. From the recent comments and reviews I have read on the Internet, I came away with the feeling that many found “LOVE AND WAR” difficult to read. In fact, many readers have complained that the novel featured too many characters. I found this complaint rather odd, considering that novels with several major characters have been the norm during the 20th century. And when did the number of characters suddenly became a detriment to a good novel? Following my recent reading of “LOVE AND WAR”, I must admit that I find this opinion hard to accept. And then there is the matter of the novel’s content. I have discovered that a good number of critics seem unwilling to accept Jakes’ mixture of historical drama and melodrama. And so, I found myself scratching my head at another criticism. Melodrama and history in a novel? These two elements have been the norm in many historical dramas – including the still highly rated “GONE WITH THE WIND” and the “POLDARK” series. When did the mixture of history and melodrama become unacceptable?

When it comes to the mixture of history and melodrama, I believe John Jakes has proven to be one of the few novelists who did it best. In “LOVE AND WAR”, I thought he did an excellent job in conveying both the personal and historic experiences of his major characters – especially during a highly charged period in American history like the Civil War. Not only did the author explore his characters’ desires, loves, fears, personal tragedy and ambition; he did so while exploring the historical background of the novel’s setting. I just realized that aside from a handful of history books and documentaries, I managed to learn a great deal about the United States’ Antebellum period, the Civil War and the post-war era from the NORTH AND SOUTH Trilogy, due to Jakes’ meticulous research and skillful writing. And about human nature.

Four of the most interesting aspects of “LOVE AND WAR” proved to be the wartime experiences of Billy Hazard, Brett Main Hazard, a former slave named Jane and Charles Main. Being an Army engineer, Billy Hazard did not participate in any battles, although he did witness a good deal of danger. Billy started out the novel as an Army officer loyal to the Union cause, but lacking any sympathy toward abolition or African-Americans – unlike Virgilia, Constance or George. Despite spending the first half of the war maintaining this attitude, it took capture by Confederate forces and a harrowing period as a prisoner of war inside Libby Prison for Billy to even understand what it means to be treated cruelly, let alone be under the complete control of another. And it took his experiences with black troops during the war’s last year to make him view them more than just subhuman, children or victims.

Ironically, his wife, Brett Main Hazard, went through a similar metamorphosis on the home front. Being the daughter and later, the sister of a South Carolina planter, Brett had difficulty adjusting to life in the North and the resentment of the Hazards’ neighbors. Throughout the novel, Brett’s encounter with several people during the war forced her to question her own priviledged Southern upbring through a series of stages. First, she helped her impoverished sister-in-law, the hardcore abolitionist Virgilia Hazard, regain some kind of physical attraction. George and Constance Hazard’s sponsorship of a local orphanage for Southern black children displaced by the war led Brett to develop compassion for them – something she had failed to do with her family’s slaves back at Mont Royal. The orphanage also led to a surprising friendship with the orphanage’s founder, a New England-born black man named Arthur Scipio Brown.

Another interesting character proved to be a young African-American woman named Jane, who found herself living at Mont Royal during the war. Jane was never owned by the Mains. She was introduced as a recently emancipated slave, who was accompanying her aunt, an elderly free black woman named Aunt Belle Nin, to the Union lines. Due to Aunt Belle’s illness, the pair sought brief refuge at Mont Royal, due to the elderly woman’s friendship with Madeline Main. Following Aunt Belle’s death, Madeline asked Jane to remain at Mont Royal and educate the plantation’s slaves in preparation for the end of the war. Madeline, who was biracial, foresaw the end of slavery and wanted the slaves to be prepared for the chaos of a post-war South. Through Jane’s eyes, readers saw how the institution of slavery affected her fellow African-Americans throughout generations. What made Jane’s role in the novel so interesting is that readers were given a closer and more personal look at the slaves as human beings than he ever did in the trilogy’s first novel, “NORTH AND SOUTH”.

Charles Main’s wartime experiences did not bring about a social and political metamorphisis as it did his cousin and best friend, Brett and Billy Hazard. Even as a child, he never really shared his family’s racism or dismiss the ugliness of slavery. On the other hand, readers were granted an exploration of life within the ranks of the Confederate Army through his eyes. Looking back, I realized that Charles’ experiences pretty much served as a metaphor for the novel’s title. Charles had began the story as a man who had already gained experience as a military officer during his four years at West Point and another four years as a U.S. Army officer on the Texas frontier. He spent his early months of the war not only trying (and sometimes failing) to instill a sense of professionalism to the Confederate soldiers who served under him. Charles’ sense of professionalism also included a belief that soldiers had no business getting involved in a serious romance. As far as Charles was concerned, serious romance prevented a soldier from being distracted and doing his job. This belief was immediately challenged after meeting a young and witty Virginia widow named Augusta Barclay, who owned a farm in Northern Virginia. Despite his efforts to maintain an emotional distance from Augusta, Charles’ feelings for her deepened. And as the war began to take an emotional toll upon him, Charles began to question the logic of continuing his romance with Augusta. If anything, Charles’ professional and personal experiences during the war proved to be a prime example of Jakes’ ability to skillfully weave both history and melodrama together.

I do have a few complaints about “LOVE AND WAR”. One, most of the novel’s setting seemed to be focused solely on the war’s Eastern Theater – with scenes and chapters set along the Eastern Seabord. Villain Elkhanah Bent’s participation in the Battle of Shiloh and his assignment in New Orleans gaves readers a view of the war’s Western theater. Also, at least three characters ended up in the New Mexico Territory by the end of the war. But a part of me wished that Jakes had allowed more scenes away from the East – as he had done in “NORTH AND SOUTH”.

But my complaint about setting is minor in compare to another issue – namely the novel’s villains. I will give Jakes kudos for managing to portray them with the same kind of complexity as he did his protagonists. I suspect that he may have somewhat succeed with Elkhannah Bent, Ashton Huntoon and Stanley Hazard. The author went further in revealing their desires, fears and ways of dealing with their personal demons and crisis. However, both Bent and Ashton still seemed less rounded than in compare to the protagonists. James Huntoon had been portrayed as a minor villain in the 1982 novel. But once his marriage fell apart, thanks to Ashton’s love affair with a smuggler and political conspirator named Lamar Powell and his career within the Confederate government stalled, Huntoon ceased to be a villain and Jakes portrayed him with a lot more sympathy.

Jakes’ portrayal of the Mont Royal slave named Cuffey began with some level of complexity, as the character expressed his anger over being considered the Mains’ property. But not much time had passed before Jakes had reduced Cuffey to a one-note thug and bully. I look back at Forest Whitaker’s portrayal of the character in the 1986 miniseries, “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II” and found myself wishing that the literary version of the character had been portrayed in a similar manner. Jakes’ portrayal of Isabel Truscott Hazard remained as static as ever. Although Jakes seemed willing to portray Stanley with more complexity, he kept Isabel as the one-note vindictive shrew throughout the novel – with the exception of one scene in which she discovered Stanley’s affair with a tawdry actress. As for the Lamar Powell character, he struck me as a one-dimensional rogue with a cruel and controlling streak. Granted, Jakes did allow one sequence featuring Powell’s point-of-view. But that could not save the character for me.

I cannot say the same about George’s older brother, Stanley Hazard. Jakes seemed a lot more sympathetic toward Stanley in “LOVE AND WAR” than he was in the preceeding novel. Stanley did not become a better person. His views of his brother George remained as resentful as ever, despite his own success in politics. And his support of the Radical Republicans and their pro-abolitionist views was at best, a hoax on his part in order to further his career. And yet, Jakes seemed more than willing to portray Stanley with a bit more sympathy and more complexity.

On the other hand, I found it odd that Jakes was willing to be more flexible with Stanley’s character, but he could not do the same for the character’s only sister, Virgilia Hazard. Unlike other fans of Jakes’ saga, I have never regarded Virgilia as a villain and I never will. I do not regard her as perfect. And she is guilty of killing a wounded Confederate officer who had the bad luck to share the same name as her former lover, a fugitive slave named Grady who had been killed during John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry. But I can never regard Virgilia as a villain. One, I share her political views . . . very strongly. Two, I find her family’s unwillingness to allow Virgilia to be herself rather frustrating. I suspect that their dismissal of her politics – due to their own conservatism and her gender – had a negative effect on her character. And three, I have noticed that Jakes’ negative portrayal of Virgilia seemed to have spread toward those historic figures that share her politics – namely the Radical Republicans.

I realize that the Radical Republicans were not perfect. But not all of them were not as bad as Jakes had portrayed them. Not once have I ever sensed the author’s willingness to portray them with any kind of sympathy or understanding. He seemed willing to criticize their behavior and policies, yet he avoids criticizing moderates such as President Lincoln like the plague. In once scene, Brett Hazrard had learned from her brother-in-law Stanley about the Republican Party’s plans to exploit the freed slaves’ gratitude over being emancipated after the war. I can only wonder if Jakes was accusing all of the Radical Republicans (including men like Thaddeus Stevens) for this willingness to exploit former slaves or fake abolitionists like Stanley and Isabel Hazard. Were all Radical Republicans – save for Virgilia – fake abolitionists? And was he trying to convey to readers that Virgilia was blind to the machinations of the Radical Republicans? Or was Virgilia simply a victim of Jakes’ overall negative attitude toward the Radical Republicans? Judging from what I have read, I can only conclude the latter.

In regard to historical accuracy, I can only account for one major example in the novel. It features an assassination plot hatched by Lamar Powell, along with the Huntoons and a few others against Confederacy president Jefferson Davis. Needless to say, this never happened. However, dislike and/or hatred of Davis did exist within the Confederacy. But aside from this story arc, Jakes painted a realistic portrait of the Civil War.

“LOVE AND WAR” is probably one of the finest Civil War novels I have ever read. The novel really gives readers a wide range view of war through the eyes of the Hazard and Main families and those with close connections to them. More importantly, Jakes managed to provide readers with a realistic portrait of the Civil War filled with a good deal of personal drama, humor, brutality, euphoria and tragedy. It is a shame that this novel is so underrated by book readers and critics today, because I thought it was simply superb, despite the few flaws it might possess. Who knows? Perhaps one day it will be universally appreciated again.